NBA may hit jackpot with Oklahoma gamble

Image: Oklahoma City Thunder merchandise
Fans crowd into the Oklahoma City team merchandise store after the new NBA franchise unveiled its Thunder logo and colors in September. Layne Murdoch / NBAE/Getty Images file

Here’s one way to beat a bad economy: Move a National Basketball Association franchise to a region hungry for professional sports.

Since the Seattle SuperSonics metamorphosed into the Oklahoma City Thunder, money has been pouring in from fans in Oklahoma, Kansas and other states. When the Thunder unveiled the season-ticket selection process in September, it expected the sales to run over eight days; instead, they were halted after 13,000 tickets were purchased in about half that time.

The day the team’s logo and nickname were announced, the average transaction per customer reached $100 at the franchise’s store in downtown Oklahoma City and at “And we didn’t even have jerseys then,” says team spokesman Dan Mahoney, referring to what is often the priciest of sports merchandise. “Lots of people were walking out with armfuls of T-shirts.”

Whether spending remains high on the first permanent big-time sports franchise in Oklahoma ls likely to depend on the performance of the Thunder, who finished 20-62 as the SuperSonics last season. They do have a foundation to build on: Former University of Texas standout Kevin Durant averaged more than 20 points in his rookie campaign.

But realistically, the playoffs are out of reach in the near future. Fans will have to be entertained by whatever fireworks are planned during pregame introductions and timeouts at the Ford Center, where the Thunder’s season was scheduled to open Wednesday against Milwaukee in front of NBA Commissioner David Stern and a sellout crowd.

Though some chuckle at an NBA team fleeing a cosmopolitan city like Seattle for the Great Plains, Oklahoma City is not the smallest market in the NBA. Oklahoma City has a population of about 550,000, compared with 450,000 for Sacramento and about half that for New Orleans.

Owning a monopoly on major pro sports in town (there have been secondary pro teams, like the Arena Football League’s Oklahoma Wranglers and a Triple-A baseball affiliate) is a big plus, guaranteeing a passionate fan base and fawning media. As San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt told the New York Times, “I wake up every morning thanking the good Lord that we’re the only game in town.”

Sponsors have embraced the new NBA franchise (the next closest one, Dallas, is about 200 miles away). Five companies – SandRidge Energy, Chesapeake Energy Corp., Devon Energy Corp., MidFirst Bank and The Oklahoma Publishing Co. — were unveiled as "founding partners" in the past week. Mahoney said most deals with sponsors last at least five years.

The Thunder sold more than 15,000 single-game tickets before the season. To ensure families can afford their games, nearly 20 percent of seats at the 19,100-capacity Ford Center will be available for $10, well below the average ticket price of $48.

Fans have proved they don’t even need real basketball games to show up; more than 16,000 watched a preseason game against the hapless Los Angeles Clippers this fall. Mahoney said the team has not put together an advertising campaign yet since there’s been no need, with ticket demand so strong.

All of that is good news for Clay Bennett and his ownership group. They have already been forced to fork over $45 million to the city of Seattle for breaking the Key Arena lease and leaving town, on top of the $350 million they paid for the team, so a flowing revenue stream in Year One is crucial.

Other positives: The Ford Center, built this decade, is already getting more than $100 million worth of renovations. Also, memories of the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, who played parts of two seasons in Oklahoma City to enthusiastic crowds after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, will dim as the Thunder takes center stage.

Perhaps the biggest question is: Why didn’t the team name itself after the whole state rather than just the city? After all, Fox Sports Oklahoma will broadcast all 84 games (including preseason) statewide. Indiana and New Jersey have shown the benefits of staking claim to a state (though the latter will trade that for a borough designation when it moves to Brooklyn in 2011).

Of course, one of the biggest advantages would go to headline writers, who could always refer to the beloved play “Oklahoma!” for easy lines. “Brand new state — gonna treat you great!” goes one verse from the theme song. So far, that’s proven true for the Thunder.